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What Is Europe?

The following paper was given at the meeting in Budapest discussed in Timothy Garton Ash’s article.

The two subjects I want to deal with are: What is culture? What is Europe? It is preposterously ambitious, but nevertheless I shall try to give a few partial answers.

Let me start with a simple historical observation: During the past three decades, Europe has not been part of the preoccupations of the French intelligentsia; in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, the concept of Europe did not at all attract the attention of intellectuals; Europe was identified with the Common Market and as such it was the province of the politicians, experts, and technocrats. The intelligentsia or at least its most influential part could not care less.

Why such indifference? For two historical reasons, I think: Hitler and the process of decolonization. Hitler, as we all know, was moved by the idea of building a new European order. His intention was to preserve the ethnic, the Aryan integrity of Europe from the poisonous blood of the Jews and other barbarians. By nearly achieving this goal, he discredited the very idea of Europe in the eyes of the intellectuals who witnessed his crimes and survived his fall.

There is a very revealing passage in “What is Literature?”, the essay written by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1947, in which he says that after the war (under the shock of the war) neutral words like “collaboration” or “Europe” became derogatory, and even taboo. In “Europe,” Sartre says, “you can hear the sound of the boots of Nazi-Germany.” The word “Europe,” he wrote, “used to refer to the geographic, economic and historic unity of the old continent. Today it conveys an odor of servitude and Germanism.”

On behalf of ethnic Europe, Hitler wanted to destroy the humanistic tradition of Europe. He did not succeed completely but, paradoxically enough, he distracted a number of intellectuals from this tradition by making the very word “Europe” sound aggressive, racist, and dangerous.

This tendency was aggravated by the process of decolonization. When third world countries started to struggle for their independence, they portrayed Europe as an imperialist force, whose humanism was just a cover for arrogance and the will to power. So, from that point of view, when you wanted to take the side of the poor and oppressed you had to stand against Europe. There was a divorce between the left and Europe, because in the international class struggle, Europe was just another name for oppression.

Here lies, I think, the root of the misunderstanding between French and, more generally, West European intellectuals on the one hand, and intellectuals who have to live under Soviet rule on the other. The repression of the Hungarian revolution in 1956 and the invasion of Prague in 1968 were denounced in Western Europe, but the Czechs and the Hungarians were not supported as Europeans, claiming their European identity: they were supported as oppressed people, victims of totalitarianism. At that time, these two notions of “European” and “oppressed” were not compatible. There could not be such a thing as an oppressed Europe—this was a contradiction in terms. That is why, whereas everybody was very sensitive to the fate of the Czechs, the Poles, and the Hungarians, nobody (with a few exceptions) listened to what they said about the meaning of their struggle. We sympathized with resistance to oppression, but we did not understand what was at stake in this resistance—the very survival of Europe in these countries.

Thanks in part to such writers as Milosz, Kundera, Kolakowski, and among the participants in our debate György Konrad and Danilo Kis, the misunderstanding is not so acute any longer. We, French and Western writers and intellectuals, take into consideration the concept of Europe. It is part of our agenda again, as we can see from this meeting, among many other symptoms.

But our problem now (and I believe it is a capital question) is to decide what idea of Europe we stand for. Will it be in Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West), or Julien Benda’s idea of Europe in Discours à la nation Européene?

I take these two names as symbols, one of the Romantic approach to culture in Europe, and the other of the humanistic approach to culture in Europe. For Spengler, Europe (or das Abendland) is a culture, which he defines according to the Romantic tradition, born in Germany with Herder, as a unique spirit, a specific character, a soul, a Geist, which spreads throughout all the activities of a given community. In that Romantic tradition, everything you do, whether you are conscious of it or not, expresses the culture you belong to and the artist or the thinker is a natural speaker of the group into which he was born.

For Benda, on the other hand, there might well be a specific European style of life, but what defines Europe is the difference, the gap, maintained and safeguarded, between culture and Volksgeist. Culture is never to be identified with the genius of a nation, of a people, of a community, or of a continent. Culture is an independent realm, an autonomous field. “La République des lettres” is inhabited by individuals.

Behind these two meanings of the same word—culture—lie two antagonistic philosophies. For the Romantic one, the individual is the expression of the collectivity where he belongs. The “I” can never cut the ties that link him to the “we”: you cannot run away from Mother Culture, nor should you. Hippolyte Taine, a French critic of the nineteenth century, expressed this artistic credo by saying: “The more an artist is perfect, the more he is national.” For the other philosophy, there is autonomy of the spirit, and artistic creation and theoretical speculation are the evidence of the capacity of man to transcend the historical and geographical context in which he lives, which even nurtures his inspiration. And here I quote Benda: “If you answer that you do not believe in the autonomy of the spirit, that your spirit cannot be anything else than an aspect of your being, then I say to you that you will never construct Europe. Because there is not such a thing as a European being [il n’y a pas d’Etre Européen].”

Benda wrote his book in 1933, the year Hitler came to power in Germany. And we all know how costly to Europe was the belief in European being, the triumph of the Romantic tendency over the humanistic tradition. This trend started with the German rebellion against the French Enlightenment at the end of the eighteenth century. The same drama is now played again on a much broader scale, with the rebellion of non-European nations against Western rule. If you look, for instance, at recent UNESCO resolutions, you will recognize the flamboyant philosophy of Romanticism translated in a dull, bureaucratic style. Culture, for UNESCO, is Volksgeist. There is no culture beyond what is now called cultural identity. The role of the state and of international agencies is to celebrate the plurality of cultural identities, and to reinforce each of them. In other words, creativity, freedom, independence—all these qualities are transferred from the individual to its community. Culture and autonomy are collective attributes.

This Romantic philosophy is what Marxist states have in common with fundamentalist states: Both violate the freedom of the individual on behalf of his community. Both do not believe in the autonomy of the spirit and think instead that the spirit cannot be anything other than an aspect of the being, whether it is defined in terms of class or of religion.

What is Europe? What is culture? I think it is possible now to give the beginning of an answer. Europe is a certain idea of culture, which can be best defined by the words: autonomy of the spirit. This idea has been fought against within Europe; it is now attacked from outside. I believe we ought to resist this attack. I am not sure that we are doing it by simply rediscovering European identity or European culture. The social sciences, for instance, for all their positivism, blur and suppress the distinction between culture and custom. Their function is to absorb artistic or intellectual creation into the conditions that produce them. If we do not believe in their results, we are mere idealists. We do become mere idealists if we act as if creation were miraculously disconnected from its material conditions; but if we surrender ourselves entirely to their implicit philosophy, then Romantic culture (Volksgeist) prevails once again over humanistic culture (“autonomy of the spirit”).

The idea of culture as an independent realm appeared in Europe quite recently with the Renaissance. What we call the Modern period can be described as the replacement of religion by culture. This period might very well come to an end. But I am not sure its disappearance will even be noticed. Because if culture is being replaced today it is by something that is entirely different but bears the same name.

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